Running Update

I promised to write this far too long ago. Here are some of the highlights on my running adventures in Greece. In a previous post, I described on particular run I did around the American School. Now I’ll tell you about some of the experiences I had on trip 2.

Trip 2 was especially full of memorable running-related events. First, I got attacked by two dogs. Don’t worry; I made it out unscathed. I attempted to run a couple of miles in Olympia before the sun came up. It was cold, so I was definitely alert. When I started I could hear dogs barking in the distance. After turning around once when I thought I would come upon some barking hounds, I thought I was in the clear. Right when I found my stride and was feeling comfortable, I passed an unsuspecting fire station. Then from out of the hedges, two vicious canines darted out at me across the street. These protective guys sure let me know I was on their turf. As when any dog assaults a runner, the best thing to do is stop, stand tall, and walk backward slowly until they leave you alone. I followed this prescription, and one dog felt it was better to be brave from the grass outside the fire station. The other one, however, was very persistent and forced me to walk about 500 feet backward. Finally someone from the fire station called his dogs back inside, and I could get away. With this bad omen to start my run, I thought it best to return to the hotel after a mile and a half. The dogs won this round. (Last September, stray dogs mauled a British woman to death in northern Greece, so it’s really not a thing to take lightly)

The second adventure was at Dimitsana–a hilly little town in Arcadia in the central Peloponnese. After a lot of time spent on the bus, I wanted to get out and get my legs moving. I recruited Peter and Giovanni to come with me for a short three miler. Wearing my best short-shorts we started out into the town. We quickly discovered the steep terrain, which did not seem to bother the city planners. We found ourselves surrounded on both sides of the narrow streets by multi-story residential and commercial buildings. People stared as they usually do in Greece. Once we got out of the town and found ourselves running on the only two-lane road leading up to Dimitsana, the running got must better. And by better, I mean flatter.

My third running adventure was a bit unorthodox. On our visit to Mt. Lykaion, the site of ancient legends about werewolves and human sacrifice, our group went to the summit. In the spirit of the ancient and modern athletic games held there, I decided to run to the summit with Peter from the archaeological site below. We set out on a service road that went around the mountain. The rest of the group hiked a straighter path to the top. After a few twists and turns, Peter and I thought we might get lost. Instead of continuing on the road, we darted up the side of the mountain. We blazed our own path through the dead grass, prickly bushes, and sheer drops. This ended up being more of a hike/rock climb than a run. I knew we were near the top when I saw the Greek flag waving above. As I crested the summit, I saw the remains of an archaeological dig (I can’t recall what the trenches were). Before I could even catch my breath, a few of my hiking colleagues also reached the top. Taking the “short cut” up the side did not save any time. Eager to run and not hike, I decided to follow the service road all the way back down. It turns out that the road led all the way to the summit. There was no need to scramble up the side at all. Being the fool that I am, I did not wear my running shoes that day. I remember running back down the unpaved road and feeling every single rock and stone through my archless, canvas shoes.

I never thought I would have a celebrity-siting while in Greece, but this fourth memorable run-in was exciting. The group was taking a lunch and swim break in a tiny, pristine bay at Voidikilia just north of Pylos. Since I don’t swim (gasp!), I thought I would make good use of the time by going for a midday stroll to explore the area. Had I prepared and anticipated better, I would have brought my running gear! I found a sign near a trail head saying “Ekklisia Profitis Ilias” (Church of the Prophet Elijah) and thought it would make for a good view overlooking the bay. The path was mostly straight until one point near the top where it makes an S-curve. Round the first turn I heard voices approaching. They were coming up fast, so I moved to the right leaving room for them to pass. There were two runners who looked like they were in for a long run–hats, camel-backs, sunglasses. I recognized the male voice as they ran by. I looked up at the last second to see his face. It was Dean Karnazes–the Ultramarahon Man! I case you were expecting a Hollywood celebrity, I am sorry to disappoint. Dean is one of the craziest runners on the planet. Some of his feats include running 50 marathons in all 50 states in 50 days and running 350 miles without stopping or sleeping (it took 80 hours and 44 minutes). I had met Dean about eight years ago at a book signing in Manhattan Beach, CA. Turns out Dean is also a son of Greek parents, so that might explain why he was there, but I did some research later that day, and apparently Dean was in town to support the 2017 Navarino Challenge (his face is on the front page of the website). There is no way at all that he would have remembered me, but I do regret not stopping to call his name. I should have turned to run and catch up with him. At least the view from Profitis Ilias was nice.

Third was a scenic run I did with Peter at Gerolimenas on the southern coast of the Mani Peninsula (the middle finger of the Peloponnese). We had about two hours of down time at this sleepy seaside village, so naturally a run was called for. It was a pretty hot day for October. Everything was a shade of brown–it hadn’t rained in a while. We took to the asphalt streets winding around the small hills that defined the contours of the town. We ran east to the next city called Alika two and a half miles away. We passed by a few isolated houses. One had four workmen out front cutting stones for a remodel. Strangely, they were slaving away in the sun when a large oak a few feet away could have provided them much shade. Along both sides of the street were gray stone walls. After thinking they may have been ancient walls, Peter reminded me that they were likely pens for shepherds to keep their sheep and goats from running away. Shepherding was still an active profession in the Mani. The scenery and solitude of the place was remarkable and unforgettable. We returned to find our colleagues sunbathing or enjoying the still-warm waters. To finish things off, we split a chicken and had some beers to cool down.

Speaking of Dean Karnazes, when we visited Sparta near the end of the trip, I was able to give a tour-bus talk to the group on the ancient and modern marathon race and the Spartathlon (Dean competed in the race in 2014 and wrote a book about it). This was a unique experience for me since I was able to share a little history about something I love. The original marathon run took place on the even of the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. The Persians were days away from landing, so the Athenians sent a hemerodromos (“day-long” runner) named Pheidippides (though I prefer the lesser manuscript variant, Phillipides) to Sparta in order to enlist their help for the coming battle. The Spartans, pious as they were, replied that they could not come because they were celebrating a religious festival to Apollo. Pheidippides ran all the way back to Athens with the bad news. The main source for this story, the Histories of Herodotus (6.105-106), states that he arrived in Sparta the day after he left Athens. In other words, he ran about 150 miles in about one day. Having received his reply from the Spartans, Pheidippides had to run back to Athens to deliver their reply. The Athenians fought the Persians on the beach of Marathon without the Spartans (though they had the help of 1,000 Plataeans), and the rest is history, so to speak.

How did the marathon turn into what it is today? Over time, this original story about a famous long-distance run associated with the Battle of Marathon got altered. A later story Heracleides Ponticus, a fourth-century philosopher, wrote that a soldier named Thersippus who ran from the battle field to announce the victory over the Persians. This story was preserved by Plutarch (On the Glory of the Athenians 347c) writing six hundred years later around the turn of the second century AD. Less than a century after Plutarch, the Syrian-born, Greek-speaking rhetorician and satirist Lucian eventually blended these two stories together, stating that it was Pheidippides who ran to bring the good news to Athens after the battle (A Slip of the Tongue in Salutation¬†3). This version later gets picked up the by American poet Robert Browning, whose 1889 poem “Pheidippides” recreated Lucian’s adulterated version. Browning’s version may have been influenced by his wife’s earlier poem “The Battle of Marathon” written in 1820 which included a similar motif. In the late 1880s, there was a growing movement to resurrect the ancient Olympian Games, and the idea of a marathon run from the plain of Marathon to Athens was central to French Pierre de Courbertin’s vision. The first marathon race at the 1896 Olympic Games in Athens was about 25 miles (won by a local Athenian, Spyridon Louis in 2:58:50), so how did it become the revered 26.2 miles that it is today? This change occurred at the 1908 Olympic Games in London, when King Edward VII wanted to have the finish line moved to outside of Windsor Castle (apparently so he did not have to leave to see the finish), so the race was extended to meet the king’s wishes.

I was unable to participate in the Athens marathon back in November since we were leaving on our Crete trip that day, but I am happy to say that I will be running the Athens Half Marathon in March. It will be my international running debut! Stay tuned for more!

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